WNBA Faces An Uphill Climb For Appropriate Attention

While the WNBA continues to grow its fan base, in part thanks to this year’s talented rookie class, the league continues to receive comments about the sport and its players that hinder its progress.
Clark, alongside Fever head coach Christie Sides, met the media during a post-draft press conference at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“EVERYONE CARES ABOUT WOMEN’S SPORTS” is imprinted across the shirt worn by an Indiana Fever fan displayed on the big screen. I can’t help but smile, not just at the slogan, but at the fact that an elementary-aged boy is proudly wearing the mantra, surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic fans in Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

The game I attended May 28, when the Fever took on the Los Angeles Sparks, was my first Fever game of the season. But it was not my first time seeing the Fever or the phenom Caitlin Clark play in person.

I was at Tamika Catchings’ final regular season game on September 18, 2016, when I was 11. The Fever legend, who led the team to its lone WNBA championship in 2012 and broke countless team and league records, capped off her 16 seasons in Indiana in front of a sold-out crowd.

Fast-forward seven years to the sold-out game this past January 30 at Assembly Hall, when Indiana University hosted the University of Iowa. I waited outside for the closest seats possible and watched the Hoosiers defeat the Hawkeyes, led by Clark, in one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced.

I’ve grown up witnessing sellouts for women’s basketball.

When I learned the Fever had snagged the first pick of the 2024 WNBA draft, and Caitlin Clark was more than likely soon to join my home team’s roster, I envisioned not only my state coming together to celebrate her and the other rising stars of collegiate basketball transitioning to the WNBA, but also the rest of the country.

After all, all the sellouts I’ve experienced means there’s a fanbase, and that fanbase is only growing—so this year was bound to be the year it truly exploded, right?

Yes and no. It exploded, but not always for the right reasons.

It seems like for every instance a great shot or funny player moment gains traction, there’s also a remark that goes viral from people who, up until now, have been outsiders to the sport commenting on a player or an aspect of the game unrelated to skill or gameplay.

The ensuing commotion surrounding the comments made by these figures, especially the most prevalent ones, is deafening at times. Whether it’s using a player’s race as ammunition to tear them or fans down or creating sexist narratives about their gameplay, the WNBA continues to attract onlookers, in particular men, who pick apart the league while sidelining the hard work and the athletic ability.

Whether these words are said with ill intent or because the people saying them don’t realize their knowledge of the issues they’re discussing is lacking, the constant commentary pulls the attention away from the effort the athletes are putting in to grow their sport.

While these statements make headlines—and some believe there’s no such thing as bad press—in a league that is still establishing itself, the barrage of thoughtless quips is harmful.

I was naive to think it would take one rookie class, even if it’s led by Clark, to fully open viewers’ eyes to all there is to value about a sport I have such an appreciation for. To make a difference and refocus commenters’ attention on the game instead of on manufacturing drama, it will take more than just the players continuing to play at their best and the fans to continue supporting them, but it will also take the individuals who are drawing attention away from the talent on the court to educate themselves and treat the athletes and the game with respect.

I am fortunate to have grown up watching women’s basketball sellout when sellouts were considered a privilege, even a feat.

But the boy I saw on the big screen has the opportunity to grow up with sellouts as the norm—and the increased footprint that comes with that. And that should be motivation enough for change.